As parents, we are right there next to our little ones, in laughter and joy, but also in sadness, grief, and pain. Here’s what we can do to really help our children through unpleasant emotions.
Wherever I go, whether online or face-to-face interactions, I seem to stumble upon the phrases “negative feelings” and “positive feelings”. And I believe that in order to actually do something differently, this is the first definition that we ought to change. I meet so many parents through my Parent Coaching Program, who love their children dearly, and are willing to do everything in their power to better their children’s feelings, but they just don’t know what to do.
Here’s a good place to start:
There are No Negative Feelings
There are pleasant and unpleasant feelings. All feelings deserve to be seen and heard, accepted and embraced, with true curiosity, empathy, and compassion, rather than judgment and all possible termination attempts. When we label something as “negative”, our internal inclination would always be to try and “fix” it. That’s our nature as human beings. But in most cases, the job of actually “fixing” is not one we can do. And moreover – nothing is really broken.
Adults’ Emotional Expectations
There’s a lot of pain in this world. Especially for little children, whose ideas on how they want the world to be clash with reality on a daily, if not hourly basis. When they want to hold a reluctant friend’s hand, when they lose their favorite toy, when they want to do something they cannot do, or when they need to do something they don’t want to do.
They pain is real. Even if by us, their parents, it is judged as nonsense. As a “childish reaction” to a grown up world. Well, here’s the thing: they are, indeed, children. Expecting them the same reactions we would expect from an adult is a mistake on our behalf. A mistake for which we might just pay the price of connection.
Making Things Better, VS Making Things Right
The renowned educator Parker J. Palmer, said that the “human soul does not want to be advised, or fixed or saved. It wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is”.
There is a massive difference between making things better, and making things right. While in most cases we will not be able to make things right (even though we would want to fix them from the very bottom of our hearts), we will be able to make things better.
So why Aren’t We Making Things Better?
Because we are so desperately trying to make things right. Let’s take a moment to think about the power of language here: right and wrong are distinctive definitions, right is good, wrong is bad. When we try to make things right, we assume that currently things are wrong, currently things are bad. Moreover, we assume that we are the ones knowing what’s right, and what’s wrong. We are the judge, and the executor of someone else’s emotions.
But, in reality, feelings are not wrong, bad, negative or anything else we can even judge. Feelings can be experienced as pleasant, or unpleasant, that’s true. But that doesn’t make them wrong. Or right. Feelings are just there. As they are. It is what we do with those feelings that eventually matters.
Cheering People Up Doesn’t Help
Let’s assume your little one can’t find his favorite toy, or that your teen failed a test, or broke up with a girlfriend; whatever it is, your child is in pain. What most of us are inclined to do, is fix the problem. Heal the pain. But can the pain heal if we ignore it? If we say “but you have so many other toys, let’s go play with them!”, “come on, this is just the first exam of this semester – I’m sure you’ll do better next time!”, or “she wasn’t good for you anyway”.
Instinctively, we try to cheer. We believe that pain is bad, and that it is our duty to make the pain go away. But it doesn’t really, does it?
- When we cheer people up, we “force” them to defend their feelings. Explain why they feel the way they feel, why it is actually as bad as they feel it is, or just cry harder (for the really little ones)
- When we give advice, people feel misunderstood. When we try to compare their pain to a pain we’ve felt in the past and tell them what we did and what worked for us (did it really work for us?)
- When we tell people what they should do to feel better, we deepen the sadness.
- When we work these strategies time and again, we decrease the chances for these people to share their pains with us in the future. When we do it with little children, we increase their chances of shutting their feelings down, putting up walls, and developing that fake sense of resilience that brought society to where it currently is.
Talking people out of pain is extremely rare, unless we let them do all the talking. And just be. With curiosity. With empathy. With love. Without expectations. Without judgment. Without an agenda. This is the state of mind that allows us to help our emotional child.
Forget What You Think You Know
If we want to help an emotional child, we need to forget what we think we know. When we interpret a situation, we use our own set of tools, experiences, memories and feelings. But what if what we think of the situation is not what’s really going on?
What if we think that he’s in pain because he lost his loved one, when actually he never loved her, but being with her made him feel worthy? What if we think our little one is in pain for losing the toy, when in reality that toy symbolized an anchor for confidence? What if we think that failing the test feels is not so horrible, when in reality it was the most studied-for and anticipated exam, one on which our teen build his image of success and accomplishment?
We will never know, unless we listen.
Observation without evaluation will work magic here. Follow the link to learn more on how you can observe without evaluation and judgment.
So How Can We Help Our Children Through Big Emotions?
One simple sentence, accompanied with a hug, is the biggest gift to one in pain: “I’m so sorry you are going through this. Want to tell me about it”? If the answer is no, it’s okay. They don’t have to. Since we’re not expecting anything, we can let our hearts do the talking. We can just hug, or be there. In silence. Together.
Being heard helps. Feeling acknowledged helps. Not being pressured to make things “right” helps.
Using Nonviolent Communication to Help Children Through Emotions
Nonviolent Communication is an incredible model to use feelings as a compass to identify needs. One of the teachings I love the most is the practice of guessing. Sounds silly – but I mean it. When we are in the proximity of a loved one who is in pain, we want to stop everything and let them BE WITH THE PAIN. Understand it, fathom it, acknowledge it. To get there, we can start guessing what they might be feeling. Every “no” they’ll say, would bring us, and them, closer to the “yes”. Closer to the relief.
And although relief is not the purpose of guessing (but the feeling of togetherness, empathy, and acknowledgement) it is a bonus if made possible.
Attachment Parenting is about finding the solutions, the actions, and the statements that bring us closer, rather than pushing us apart. Next time your child needs help coping with emotions, remember there’s nothing to fix, because nothing is broken.
Remember feelings are not negative, or bad. They are feelings, and they are the beating heart within your child at that very moment. Join my parenting support group on Facebook, let’s talk about it 🙂